The Impact of the Hubble Space Telescope

By Julianne Dalcanton | August 13, 2008 4:47 am

I’m in the throes of writing a muckity-muck review article on the scientific impact of the Hubble Space Telescope. I’ve got plenty of opinions about what aspects of HST were transformative in my own subfields, but I thought I’d throw open the floor to the CV readers as well.

What I’m looking for are key results that (1) truly changed how people thought about something, and (2) would (probably) not have been discovered without HST. Bonus points if you include an actual paper reference, and/or you work on stars or planets!

  • SamuelRiv

    I would like to ask that you don’t skip over the impact on the public and the incoming generation of scientists of the HST. Certainly capturing the public imagination has helped increase public support for science and space travel in general, in spite of setbacks and mission failures in space, but I have cited a case study below.

    I certainly grew up with Hubble and have the children’s astronomy books to prove what learning astronomy was like before and after such breathtaking pictures were available. For what they couldn’t photograph well enough, they did artists’ impressions, which never had as big an impact. Even as an astronomy TA this year, I tried to emphasize the aesthetics of Hubble pictures as well as the concepts they illustrated (not that emphasizing aesthetics worked for non-majors, but concepts were much easier to explain with the images).

    The Public Impact of the Hubble Space Telescope: A Case Study
    Christian, C. A.
    Organizations and Strategies in Astronomy, Volume 5.
    Published by Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 2004., p.203
    ISBN: 1-4020-2570-X

  • Paul Duffield

    From the point of view of the public, something that’s amazed me is the incredible resource that is the official hubble website. Being able to easily download, browse and read about such high res images for free in one place has brought astronomy and the incredible diversity of form in the universe to life for me in a way nothing else ever really has before.

  • Robert

    What about the discovery of super star clusters (Holtzman et al 1992)? Young massive star clusters are things you don’t see in the Milky Way, but they seem to be what our globular clusters are descended from.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Impact? I thought it was still in orbit, and that they were even going to repair it again. But when it happens, I suppose the severity of the impact depends on whether the primary mirror breaks up during descent.

  • Christer Watson

    In star formation, the observations of protoplanetary disks around young stars (proplyds) was made possible by the high spatial resolution of Hubble in the visible. Although they were discovered earlier in radio wavelengths or lower resolution (Churchwell et al. 1987, Laques & Vidal 1979), the observations using Hubble had an undeniably strong influence on our understanding of the evolution of disks around young stars. I’m not an expert in the field, but O’Dell has worked extensively on Orion (see O’Dell et al. 1993, O’Dell & Wen 1994, O’Dell & Wong 1996, O’Dell 1998, 2001). There are other, perhaps more fundamental, references.

  • RecoveringPhysicist

    I was reminded of my first trip to the planetarium (I was 7, scared because it was dark but completelyamazed by the very concept of “space”) when I saw this site.

    google ROCKS!!!

  • Brad Holden

    I would recommned discussing the HDF for two reasons. First, it revolutionized the studies of high redshift galaxies. Second, the idea of a large and instantly available dataset changed how all of the satellites do big surveys.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Intracluster stars.

    Resolving the stellar population of globulars and getting clean CMDs with proper motion membership.

    I agree with proplyds mentioned above.

    Young star clusters at the center of the Milky Way.
    Protostars in star forming regions.

    Planetary nebulae – if only for the pretty pictures…

    Absorption spectroscopy of transiting giant planets.

    Neutron star proper motion and companions.

    White dwarf cooling sequence.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    There are a number of major impacts. I would include with those above the observation of Einstein lenses and the confirmation of dark matter in the universe. Early galaxy formation at z ~ 7 or so is also important. In addition the observation of some distant SNI’s to confirm Perelman’s results.

    Maybe the HST also illustrated that manned spaceflight might have some utility. The HST missions were about the only thing the space shuttle did that amounted to anything.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Roman

    Is this a Romulan battlecruiser at 1h 43m 36.0s, -52^ 21′ 7.6″?

  • Cusp

    Biggest impact – that a telescope can be treated like rock star, with a massive press machine behind it that biggies up not so big impact result, strangely “discovering” things I thought we already knew.

    I was waiting for the press release “Hubble discovers large satellite of the Earth!!!!”

    (ps – there were quite a few high points as well :)

  • ts

    Though Julianne wants scientific impact, I cannot help but mention the Hubble’s impact on the publicity like others here. The sheer beauty of the images of the objects in the universe (though almost always in false colors), made astronomy a major staple in popular science. It’s not like people now suddenly care about the universe, but science needs whatever money it can get, so… The H(U)DF image is just plain beautiful!! So many galaxies from the distant universe — a picture really is worth a thousand papers.

    As for science, anything that requires high resolution imaging benefited from Hubble — really a no brainer… As a high-z galaxy enthusiast, morphology trend of galaxies in clusters and fields over a wide redshift range is something that couldn’t really be done without Hubble.

  • Pat Durrell

    I would also mention (in addition to other suggestions above) the main sequence ages of stars in the outer regions of M31. But I imagine Julianne already has that one down :)

  • Lab Lemming

    Hubble inspired an entire family of jokes about visual impairment in the early 1990′s…

  • Ben

    Everybody forgets spectroscopy with HST, possibly because it doesn’t make pretty pictures. But it can take some credit for:

    - convincing detection of a supermassive black hole in M87 (Harms etal 1994, ApJ…435L..35)

    - relations of supermassive black hole mass to galaxy bulge mass and to bulge velocity dispersion (Magorrian etal 1998, AJ….115.2285; Gebhardt etal 2000, ApJ…539L..13)

    - detection of substantial amounts of low-density highly ionized IGM gas via O VI, although I think the jury is still out on whether the detectable phase is actually “missing baryons” or is associated with galaxies and groups of galaxies (Tripp etal 2000, ApJ…534L…1)

  • Cusp

    > I would also mention (in addition to other suggestions above) the main sequence ages of stars in the outer regions of M31.

    Although ground based imaging over large area show that all the fields observed by HST in the outer parts of M31 are contaminated with debris from accreted structures – no clean halo fields have been observed.

  • brad

    For amusement sake, you might also mention that HST rediscovered relativistic aberration. Have a look at section 4 of Bahcall et al. (1992) ApJ 387, 56 (which
    is also a legit contender for your list, as the start of HST Snapshot surveys).
    According to Bohdan Pacynski, who pointed this out to me (some years ago, obviously), the HST control software came from a source that handled spacecraft, but ones that looked *down*, rather than “out” or “up”. So they never had to worry about the earth’s motion around the sun, and so the pointing was a little bit off!

    Moral of the story – always understand the source and magnitude of your errors!

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    While the HST has had a big impact on many areas of astronomy, I have to agree with the previous posts that the study of high redshift galaxies was the most dramatic both in science and how the science was done. For impact, the paper by Madau et al. (1998) MNRAS, 283, 1388 has been cited 1,160 times according to the ADS service and a number of those later paper have been cited hundreds of times.

  • Anthony

    Direct measurement of the size of Kuiper Belt Objects (2004AJ….127.2413B) might be worth a mention.

  • grbiersema

    I agree that the HDF is a fantastic survey.
    Things that also have significant impact (in my opinion):
    The GOODS/HST Transient Search Survey, which got us a highly unbiased
    sample of core-collapse supernovae and their hosts; the HST coronagraph
    work (eg on debris disks) has really strongly improved out understanding of
    how coronagraphs should be operated in space; the definition of a really good set of spectrophotometric standard stars (the HST white dwarf standard stars);
    the STIS spectroscopy of low redshift DLA systems (where the interesting
    transitions are in the UV) and how they couple to low redshift Ly break populations; The late time evolution of the crucially important supernova 1987A (the rings and other geometric features),
    etc etc.
    I guess our understanding of enigmatic and frankly rather weird objects like V838
    Mon really is aided by the high resolution HST imaging as well.

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    I find it interesting that no one here has mentioned the Cepheid key project for getting the Hubble constant (OK, more precisely getting the distance modulus to some galaxies outside the local group). I recall that before the HST launch, NASA emphasized how HST will nail the Hubble constant to within 10 percent. Perhaps this says something on how unexpected discoveries can be more dramatic than those that are planned.

  • Joshua

    Although I assume this is covered already, HST was crucial for advancing exoplanet research. A few of the notable papers were:

    - The surprising lack of transiting planets in 47 Tuc – 2000ApJ…545L..47
    - The amazing first HST lightcurve of the transit of HD209458 – 2001ApJ…552..699
    - The detection of an exoplanet atmosphere – 2002ApJ…568..377

  • Bruce

    >The detection of an exoplanet atmosphere – 2002ApJ…568..377

    Although this was a very exciting result, I’m not sure it qualifies as
    “transformative” in the sense of changing our understanding of exoplanets. I would argue that Spitzer observations have had much greater impact in the field.

  • Mark W.

    I’m not a scientist, but I was hoping that HST would finally locate where all the lost airline luggage ends up. Alas….

  • The AstroDyke

    Second Brad’s comment about the HDF inventing the concept of big public surveys, now replicated with the other great observatories. Ben W.’s spectroscopy suggestions are also spot-on. Others mentioned quasar absorption line spectroscopy, quasar host galaxies, and H_0 — these were all prelaunch key science goals, so it’s a relief that yes, we got the answers.

    Other results I’d suggest:

    - FGS parallaxes for Cepheids (and exoplanets). This knocks out the bottom rungs of the distance ladder, a major change. ADS papers here.

    - proper motions for local galaxies. Like the FGS parallaxes above, it’s amazing we can measure these. The results are also surprising — for example, the large motion measured for the Large Magellanic Cloud is shaking people up — either the LMC is just passing through unbound or barely bound to us, or our Galaxy is considerably more massive than assumed.

    - gravitational lensing models, strong and weak, for galaxy clusters. With HST’s resolution and sensitivity, a few poster child galaxy clusters became over-constrained problems with robust lensing solutions. Interesting high-z results, important prototyping that paved the path for dedicated weak lensing surveys.

    - debris disks around Beta Pictoris and Fomalhout. Mentioned above, but I wanted to add links. Every time I stare at the Fomalhout image, I get goose bumps.

    - narrowband imaging of Paschen alpha at z~0. Transformative in terms of robustly establishing star formation rate diagnostics with much less danger of unrecovered extinction.

  • Pingback: Hubble’s impact | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

  • Jer

    First thing I thought of was globular CMDs, but Steinn beat me to it… how about SBF measurements of relative distances in Virgo and Fornax? (ApJ 536, 255 is one, but I’m sure I’ve seen more). HDF is a given. A few people have mentioned strong gravitational lensing solutions in clusters, but how about 3D dark matter tomography with weak gravitational lensing in COSMOS (ApJS 172, 239)? Gaps in dust disks as evidence of planets (ApJ 525, L53)?


  • Kaleberg

    Development of the Hubble started during a lull in Earth based telescope building. Was it Palomar that held the 360″ reflector record for how long? Between the time the Hubble was proposed and launched telescope design took off. There were the segmented scopes, the artificial guide star based corrected scopes, the pair interferometric scopes and so on. The sizes got bigger, the resolutions improved and the technologies went digital and advanced even further.

    Interestingly, the Hubble is still pre-eminent. After a long shakedown it started producing images that show that there is nothing quite like being outside the earth’s atmosphere for good seeing. Sure, a ground based scope can outsee the Hubble under certain circumstances, but not as a rule. The Hubble is an amazing machine, and there is no reason it can’t continue producing great images and doing good science for quite some time.

  • arak

    As can be seen from the above comments, Hubble has had little impact in the way of major discoveries.

    The major discoveries since 1993, when Hubble was repaired, have come from low-cost ground and space telescopes. For example, exoplanets with a 1.7m ground telescope, the details of the CMB (and incidentally the accurate Hubble constant measure) with WMAP.

    One way Hubble has benefited astronomy in general is that US people who get time get substantial grants to do the astronomy with the observations. This has been a major input of NASA funds for people doing actual research.

  • EdP

    In 1972, the Last of the Manned Moon Landings took place. By then, which was Apollo 17, there was very little Interest in it, because “we have been there, done that, lets see something New….”

    In the 1980′s and 1990′s, we had the Shuttle, two major disasters, the First one caused the Public to Question the $$ that NASA got and the viability of a space program. The Second, the public started taking notice more and began to question why NASA was Not protecting their Astronauts with better equipment.

    In 1990, Hubble was taken up in a Shuttle, the Public YAWNED, because they were used to how BORING Astronomy was in school, no real focus was put on it at the time.

    1971 began an era of the Space Station. The first ones, flown by the USSR were nothing more than two space modules docked together. It wasn’t until Salut 4, in 1974, tile more permanence that lasted more than 1 year began. In total there was 7 Saylut’s. After that the beginning of Mir began (of the total 28 crews, 5 stayed longer than 1 year, and the total average is approx. 130 days), which today is of great national pride of the Russian people, whose station lasted from 1986 until the end of the century. America was not able to keep a station up more than 2 years and only 3 crews, that being Skylab from 1973-1974.

    While Skylab had a good deal of interest in the Schools, there was very little public interest.

    When Mir came down, there was great interest in the Newly growing ISS (International Space Station, started in 1998, 2 years before Mir came back to earth). The ISS has had a Slow Road, but great interest from the world-wide public.

    All of this has been Helpful for Hubble to begin to come into the Public Eye.

    And BOY DID IT HIT the Public Eye. The Pictures of the Universe it gives us. A Better Understanding of the Universe around us. Being able to Find a Planet (NO I will NEVER call them “Proto-Planets” OR “Dwarf-Planets”. They are Numerous Miles across, and have Enough Gravity to have Moons, Thus they ARE PLANETS!!!). And Now, NASA has Found Planet X (Makemake), beyond Pluto and about the same size of Pluto (which is 742 miles radius (which is Just smaller than the Moon). Pluto is 7375AU (that is 7,375 time the distance of Earth to Sun), Makemake is 7939AU.

    Now, they are able to use Hubble and other space Based Telescopes to Image Planets up to a few Thousand Light-years away (light travels at 186,000 miles per second, and it takes light 8 minutes to get from the Sun to Mars. Mars is 3.4AU).

    Hubble’s Impact is Much more Far-Reaching than we may realize for another few hundred years, if Mankind does not destroy itself beforehand, or God doesn’t whisk us away before then.

  • Lab Lemming

    Ed, you might wanna check some of the numbers you’ve quoted for solar system distances…

  • Brian

    Am I the only one that thinks a review of Hubble is somewhat premature? Maybe it’s because I’m fairly young and new to the field, so I don’t remember how dramatic the early discoveries were, but it seems to me the two new instruments may make some of the most exciting discoveries yet.

  • Julianne

    Brian — There are many “facts” that we all take as given in 2007, that were not actually known in the early 1990′s. These days we assume that QSO’s all sit in the centers of galaxies, and that all massive galaxies host black holes. Pre-Hubble, neither of these “facts” were known. The ideas were out there, but were one of many competing theories. Hubble has been so successful that many of its best discoveries are now uncited bits in the standard canon.

    I agree completely about the new instruments, however. WFC3′s IR camera is particularly smoking.

  • Cotton Phil

    The lasting impact of the HST will be the paradigm shift about Man’s place in the Universe. When photos were published of the horse-head nebula where stars were forming, the picture etched into our minds the realization that we are on a tiny rock in a tiny region of space. The likelihood that we are some Creator’s chosen people suffered an enormous blow when that wonderful picture emerged. The impact was akin to the publication of the photograph taken by the Apollo astronauts of tiny, blue Earth rising above the lunar horizon: nothing was the same afterwards.

    We have the HST to thank for moving the zeitgeist forward and away from our lame beliefs that we humans are “The Chosen.” This is how the HST will be remembered.


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